Basically “The Little Boat That Could,” “Madison” charts a predictable course through cliche-infested waters. Not even the warm presence of a pre-“The Passion of the Christ” James Caviezel can invigorate this inspirational but uninspired sports movie, which premiered at Sundance in 2001, then sat on the shelf for four years before becoming MGM’s unlikely penultimate release. Studio’s less-than-conspicuous marketing push and unenthusiastic word of mouth will quickly capsize the project, though it could prove marginally more navigable on video.
Based on the true story of Jim McCormick, who overcame merciless odds — and the smug derision of the entire hydroplane racing community — to win the 1971 Gold Cup, “Madison” draws its title from McCormick’s small Indiana hometown as well as the rickety yellow boat that was once its pride and joy.
Once a thriving town on the Ohio River, Madison suffers from rampant unemployment and a general Hicksville reputation. As for the community-owned race boat, the Miss Madison, she’s deteriorated into a slow, spluttering wreck, prone to random breakdowns and odd fumes.
Thus it’s up to McCormick (Caviezel), the pilot of the race boat and one of the town’s last true believers, to rally his neighbors, keep Madison on the highly competitive racing circuit and restore his son Mike’s faith in the power of miracles. (Mike is played by a very young Jake Lloyd, with John Mellencamp handling the voiceover.) But McCormick, now an air-conditioner repairman, hasn’t raced since his near-fatal accident years ago, and wife Bonnie (Mary McCormack) isn’t about to let him risk his life again.
A surprising turn of events leaves Madison hosting the Gold Cup tournament. Meanwhile, the job cuts continue, the boat blows a fuse and McCormick is subject to constant ridicule by the children (yes, even the tots are evil) of the opposing Budweiser team.
To the credit of writer-director William Bindley and co-scribe Scott Bindley, the pace rarely stalls or lingers, motoring along much more efficiently than the floundering craft at the film’s center. Yet that only draws attention to the mechanical quality of the narrative, which favors expedience over plausibility at every turn. Every obstacle, from the town’s financial rut to the McCormicks’ domestic woes, has a quick, ready-made solution. Simply to maneuver McCormick into the boat racer’s seat, the plot takes a turn so callous and unnecessarily tragic that it almost stops the film in its watery tracks.
Here it becomes clear that Bonnie may very well have a point in protesting her husband’s racing. It also becomes evident that without the benefit of Caviezel’s sympathetic drawl and perpetually moist puppy-dog eyes, McCormick might come off as a lot more feckless and irresponsible than he does.
Pic could use more of the occasional throwaway banter between husband and wife. And as a story about teamwork, it needs a richer, more lived-in sense of community ties: Despite colorful local-yokel perfs by Brent Briscoe, Paul Dooley and Bruce Dern as a sort of mechanic/boat guru, neither Madison the town nor “Madison” the movie ever feels fully inhabited.
Though agreeably lensed, the racing sequences lack flair or visceral impact. And, even when the boats quit, Kevin Kiner’s aggressively uplifting score never does.